Border Wall, Congestion, Donald Trump, Dynamic Message Boards, economic stimulus, Efficient Pricing, Elon Musk, eminent domain, Heritage Foundation, High speed rail, Hyperloop, infrastructure, Jerry L. Jordan, Job Creation, Keystone Pipeline, Michael Sargent, Private Infrastructure, Reason Foundation, Solar Roads, St. Louis MO, Steven Horowitz, T. Norman Van Cott, Trolleys, Tunnel Boring, User Fees
We’ll soon have a new president and already we’ve heard new promises of infrastructure investment. Once again, a chorus of politicians and pundits decries the woeful state of America’s road, bridges, sewers and airport terminals. Then, there are hosannas in adoration of the economic stimulus and job creation promised by large public works projects. And of course there are proposals to integrate politically-favored technologies with new infrastructure. All three rationales for a publicly-financed infrastructure program are flawed. Our infrastructure is not as inadequate as many believe; it is bad public policy to justify infrastructure decisions on the basis of the construction jobs required; and new infrastructure should not be treated as a vehicle for large-scale deployment of unproven technologies.
Much of our nation’s infrastructure is privately owned. This includes, but is not limited to, power generation and the power grid, communication networks, many water systems and sewer systems, most rail lines, some toll roads and bridges, and some river, sea and space ports. Maintenance and upgrades to private facilities, and to some public facilities, depend on the adequacy of the rates or fees charged to users. On the other hand, the quantity and quality of publicly-owned and operated infrastructure is often left up to taxpayers rather than users. Proposals for federal infrastructure investment are largely about these public facilities, but they might also involve subsidies for the development of private infrastructure.
Crisis or Crock?
In a Heritage Foundation research report, Michael Sargent notes that the poor state of the country’s public infrastructure is wildly exaggerated:
“The notion that America’s infrastructure is ‘crumbling’ and in uniquely poor condition is not supported by data. The percentage of the nation’s bridges deemed ‘structurally deficient (not necessarily unsafe, but requiring extensive maintenance) has declined annually since 1990 and now sits at under 10 percent, well under half of what it was 25 years ago. Similarly, analyses of highway pavement quality conclude that the nation’s major roads have been steadily improving in quality and are likely in their best shape ever. Our airports and airways safely move more people and goods than those of any other nation. Overall, the U.S. ranks near the top of G-7 nations for infrastructure quality.“
The usual poster child of the infrastructure “crisis” is the nation’s transportation system, but this report from the Reason Foundation shows that those troubles are something of a myth.
Nevertheless, there are always repairs, maintenance and replacement projects to be considered, as well as possible expansion and new facilities. Infrastructural shortfalls and expansion must be prioritized, but as Sargent emphasizes, an even larger number of projects should and probably would be handled privately if not for burdensome federal regulations. In addition, an irrational mistrust of privately-operated facilities among some segments of the public creates pressure to burden taxpayers with costs, rather than users. Complaints about congestion on roads offer a case in point: the best solutions involve efficient (and positive) pricing of existing capacity, rather than continued expansion of a “free” good. The avoidance of rational solutions like efficient pricing underscores the extent to which demands for increased public investment in infrastructure are driven by hyperbole, rather than sound analysis.
It’s About the Infrastructure, Not the Jobs
Public infrastructure projects are also pitched as effective engines of economic stimulus and job creation. Both of those claims are questionable. Most importantly, the real rationale for infrastructure investment is the value of the infrastructure itself and the needs it serves going forward. The public expense and the jobs required to produce it are cost items! This point was made recently by economist T. Norman Van Cott, who rightfully asserts that a given output is of greater benefit when its costs are low and when it requires less labor input. (Van Cott’s piece uses the Keystone pipeline as an example, a controversial private project that I find objectionable for its dependence on eminent domain actions.) The sharp distinction between creating value and creating jobs is also made here by Jerry L. Jordon and here by Steven Horowitz. Here is Horowitz:
“Creating jobs is easy; it’s creating value that’s hard. We could create millions of jobs quite easily by destroying every piece of machinery on U.S. farms. The question is whether we are actually better off by creating those jobs—and the answer is a definite no.“
Yet this is how so many infrastructure projects are pitched at the national, state and local levels. It’s also puzzling that economic stimulus is used as a rationale even when the economy is operating near its potential output. Even by the standards of traditional Keynesian economic analysis, that is the wrong time for stimulus. Infrastructure projects should be evaluated on their own merits, not on how many construction workers must be hired, or on how much of their paychecks those workers will spend. Many of them must be bid away from competing projects anyway.
The Public Investment Trough
Here’s a brief anecdote from my own experience with an “advanced” public infrastructure project. Some years ago in the region around my city, St. Louis, Missouri, transportation agencies began to install a network of electronic highway message boards to convey real-time information to drivers on road conditions, congestion, and various public service announcements. The 100+ signs in the area today are connected to operators in a central office via fiber optic cable. This type of system is used elsewhere, and it is partly funded by the federal government.
I seriously question the benefits of this system relative to cost. The signs themselves cost well in excess of $100,000 each. The fiber network is undoubtedly costly, and there are other fixed and variable system costs. The signs have an anachronistic look, vaguely the quality of old high school scoreboards. The information they provide generally adds little to what I already know (“12 minutes to I-270”). The signs are in fixed positions, so the occasional report of an accident or congestion usually comes too late to give motorists decent alternatives. The information the signs provide on road conditions is obvious. Missives such as “buckle up” are of questionable value. Before I depart on a commute, or if I have a passenger, we can consult maps and other apps on cell phones to avail ourselves of far better information. Other, more flexible technologies were outpacing the message boards even before they could be fully deployed, and the boards are still being deployed. This is a project that might have sounded brilliant to highway engineers 20 years ago, but it represented something of a luxury relative to other needs, and it still got funded. Today, it looks like waste.
The politics of infrastructure often means that the enabling legislation gets loaded with poorly-planned projects and shiny jewels to dangle before home constituencies. Legislators are so eager to demonstrate their sophistication that they fall over themselves to approve taxpayer funds for unproven but politically-favored technologies. For example, a recent post by Warren Meyer notes the technical folly of solar roads. These are unlikely to attract much private money because they represent such a monumentally stupid idea. Proponents will go after tax money instead. The same is true of ideas like Elon Musk’s tunnel boring project, for which he hopes to collect massive taxpayer subsidies. Musk claims that tunnels will eliminate road congestion, but efficient pricing would do much to eliminate this problem without tunnels, and other technologies like automated vehicles are likely to reduce congestion by the time Musk over-invests tax money in tunnel-boring equipment, roads and hyper-loops inside tunnels.
In general, taxpayers should be wary of “green infrastructure” proposals. A large number of bike lanes, pedestrian bridges and greenways sound wonderful, but they are serious cost inflators. Federal dollars are regularly squandered on charming but wasteful projects such as trolleys. Even worse are ongoing efforts to subsidize the construction of high-speed rail systems. All of these bright ideas should be resisted.
Let’s Be Rational
The country certainly has infrastructural needs, but claims that we face a crisis are greatly exaggerated. With a new administration and what are likely to be supporting majorities in both houses of Congress, the danger of rushing into big funding commitments is heightened. The sponsors of this kind of legislation will herald massive job creation, but that is incidental to the cost side of the ledger. The benefits of individual projects should be evaluated carefully in comparison to costs. Then they can be prioritized if deemed of sufficient value. Finally, large scale deployment of unproven technologies should be avoided on the public dime.
I haven’t even mentioned one very large infrastructure project that has been proposed by President-Elect Donald Trump: the border wall. I suspect that it would be easier and less expensive to solve the problem of border security using more advanced and flexible technologies, but the permanence and symbolism of a wall appeals to many of Mr. Trump’s supporters. The benefits of a wall in terms of border security and control of immigration flows are difficult if not impossible to evaluate, as are the costs to taxpayers, with Trump promising to extract some form of payment from Mexico. The wall, however, is being “sold” to the American public in emotional terms. Come to think of it, that’s how too many other infrastructure proposals are sold by politicians!
There are promising opportunities to improve the nation’s infrastructure through the private sector, where the value of projects is subject to evaluation by parties who must put “skin in the game”. This will be addressed in my next post.